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Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

by Matthew F. Delmont
Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

by Matthew F. Delmont

Hardcover(First Edition)

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When Alex Haley’s book Roots was published by Doubleday in 1976 it became an immediate bestseller. The television series, broadcast by ABC in 1977, became the most popular miniseries of all time, captivating over a hundred million Americans. For the first time, Americans saw slavery as an integral part of the nation’s history. With a remake of the series in 2016 by A&E Networks, Roots has again entered the national conversation. In Making “Roots,” Matthew F. Delmont looks at the importance, contradictions, and limitations of mass culture and examines how Roots pushed the boundaries of history. Delmont investigates the decisions that led Alex Haley, Doubleday, and ABC to invest in the story of Kunta Kinte, uncovering how Haley’s original, modest book proposal developed into an unprecedented cultural phenomenon.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520291324
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Matthew F. Delmont is Professor of History at Arizona State University and the author of Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation and The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ’n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, both published by UC Press.

Read an Excerpt

Making Roots

A Nation Captivated

By Matthew F. Delmont


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96513-3


Before This Anger

The story of the making of Roots begins at Le Marmiton, a French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. Over lunch on August 5, 1964, Alex Haley told Doubleday editor Ken McCormick and literary agents Paul Reynolds and Phoebe Larmore about an idea for a book about life in his hometown of Henning, Tennessee. Haley arrived at lunch without a formal book proposal, but he was a great talker and he entertained his lunch companions with stories about growing up in the rural South. McCormick loved the book idea, and Haley signed a contract with Doubleday later that month to write Before This Anger. No one at the table could have anticipated how this project would grow over the next decade into Roots.

Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was born in 1921 and raised partly in Henning, a small town on the eastern edge of Tennessee. Haley's mother, Bertha (Palmer) Haley, was from a well-to-do black family that owned a lumber business. "When most kids were out pulling cotton she was virtually being pampered," Haley recalled. Haley's father, Simon Haley, was a professor of agriculture who had served in World War I and worked as a Pullman porter. The family, which included Alex's younger brothers George and Julies, moved regularly to follow Simon's teaching appointments at different black institutions in the South, including Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee; Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, Oklahoma; and Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Alabama. Bertha died when Alex was ten, and Simon Haley was remarried a year later to Zeona Hatcher, an English teacher at Alabama A&M. Zeona ran a strict household and did not favor Alex. "By the time he was a teenager in Alabama," Haley's biographer, Robert Norrell writes, Alex Haley "was practicing the art of avoiding conflict."

The family returned to Henning, Tennessee, every summer, where Alex enjoyed a more relaxed schedule in the company of his maternal grandmother, Cynthia Palmer, and her sister, Alex's "Aunt Liz." These elders regaled him with stories about the family's history, fostering an early appreciation for storytelling that eventually became his livelihood. Years later, in a Smithsonian Institution speech during the nation's bicentennial, Haley reflected on what he thought of as a simpler time. "Older adults of today can remember their childhood evenings when the kith and kin would gather in their homes, the entertainment mostly was that the elders would talk, and the young would listen," he told the audience. "Those elder ones' very presences evoked within all of the younger family members an ingrained sense of family continuity, and lineage and heritage." Alex also made summer friendships with both black and white children, including George Sims, a tall light-skinned African American young man who was raised in Henning and who later became Alex Haley's research assistant and traveling companion. Memories of these comfortable summers in Henning animated Alex Haley's romantic vision of southern life and his initial approach to Before This Anger.

Alex graduated from high school in 1937 and finished his freshman year at Alcorn A&M in the Mississippi Delta before transferring to Elizabeth City State Teachers College in North Carolina. Alex dropped out of Elizabeth City College after a year to join the US Coast Guard, which deeply disappointed his father. "When I went into the service ... it was the patriotic thing to do," Haley said, "but when the war was over and I didn't come out and go back to school and get my Ph.D., my dad became furious and he refused to have anything to do with me for a long time."

Haley was twenty years old when he met his first wife, Nannie "Nan" Branch, in Beaufort, North Carolina, where he was stationed in the Coast Guard. The couple married in the wake of Pearl Harbor in what Haley later described as "a kind of marrying time for military people." The couple had two children, Lydia and William, but Haley became increasingly invested in his writing career and was not an attentive father or husband. While he became obsessed with his family's history, Haley admitted he was not cut out for day-to-day family responsibilities. When "I am honest with myself," Haley later wrote, "I just ain't that domesticated. I too often yen to range and roam."

Haley started writing in the Coast Guard. To stave off boredom at sea, he wrote letters to everyone he knew and penned love letters for shipmates to send to their girlfriends. "The fellows began to have phenomenal success," Haley said of these personalized love letters. "And to a bunch of sailors you are Merlin when you achieved that." This success convinced Haley to submit stories for publication in pulp magazines like Modern Romances and True Confessions. Haley wrote constantly and shared his writing with his Coast Guard commanding officer, who was a former sportswriter. Haley had dozens of stories rejected before finally placing a story about the Coast Guard in This Week magazine, a newspaper supplement.

Haley began his Coast Guard career as a mess boy, cleaning the ship and serving dinner to the officers, but by 1949 he was promoted to chief petty officer with the previously nonexistent title Chief Journalist of the Coast Guard. The position was an office job that called for Haley to write press releases, speeches for officers, and stories for Coast Guard publications. Though Haley attended to his Coast Guard duties during the day, he woke up early and stayed up late working on freelance stories for national magazines. Haley lived with his wife and children in Harlem in these years, but his energies were focused on becoming a professional writer.

Haley published his first national magazine article in Reader's Digest in July 1954. In "The Harlem Nobody Knows," Haley surveyed the economic potential of New York's historic black neighborhood and described how "racial pride and the desperate fight for survival" were being "channeled in more disciplined ways to shape Harlem's future." "Man for man, as a community, we are ready to be compared with other communities," Julius Adams, executive editor of the black newspaper New York Age, told Haley. "What we need is a crusade of public relations. Harlem's biggest trouble now is that in too many minds the Negro remains a stereotype." Adams could not have known that Haley would do as much as any writer to challenge stereotypes of black people.

Haley's optimism and upbeat attitude made him well suited to public relations work but could not protect him from racism. In the summer of 1954, Haley was transferred to the Coast Guard office in San Francisco. "It was a big adventure for me and my wife Nan and the two kids," Haley remembered. "We piled into the car and happily set out to drive from New York to San Francisco. ... After a day's driving and now about sundown, you start looking for where you're going to stay. The first night we were in New Jersey. All these signs: motel, motel, vacant, vacant and you go up and suddenly the people are telling you, 'Oh, I'm so sorry, we just rented the last one.' ... We crossed [the] country, every single night it was the same thing." Haley started wearing his Coast Guard uniform with his service ribbons prominently displayed, but "They didn't mean a thing." Haley recalled it was particularly hard to explain to his children that "vacant" did not always mean "open." He described this experience as similar to one recounted by Martin Luther King in "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." King described the feeling of finding "your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children." This everyday sort of racism was familiar to black people across the United States in this era, but that did not make it any easier for Haley to accept. By the time the family drove over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, Haley said, "I was as angry as I'd ever been in my life."

Despite this humiliating trip, San Francisco gave Haley his first glimpse of what it meant to be a professional writer. Haley met Barnaby Conrad, a writer who owned a popular nightclub in San Francisco called El Matador, frequented by writers like Truman Capote, William Saroyan, Budd Schulberg, and John Steinbeck. Conrad and Haley became friends, and Haley spent hours talking with the writers he met through Conrad. "It was the first time I had been in a community of selling writers," Haley recalled. By the time he retired from the Coast Guard in 1959 to become a full-time writer, Haley had published pieces in Readers Digest, the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's.

Haley, Nan, and the children moved from San Francisco back to New York City in 1959. The couple soon separated, with Nan moving in with family in Harlem and Haley finding a small apartment in Greenwich Village (92 Grove Street), a building where his friend George Sims worked as the janitor. Haley felt that Greenwich Village was "where a writer belongs," though he did not know any professional writers in New York at the time. Haley wrote to a half-dozen black artists in the city whom he hoped could give him advice. Only one writer replied, but that one was James Baldwin. Haley recalled, "It is a warm dear thing with me that that man at that time, who got this letter from an utterly unknown not only as a writer but utterly unknown to him, took the trouble to walk from where he lived to over to where I was and sat down and talked with me a couple of hours." Haley found talking with Baldwin to be nourishing. "Baldwin talked of what he knew so well, and I so little — of the Civil Rights struggle, and of the black writers' responsibilities to articulate the man [sic] facets and complexities of it," Haley said. "He had psychologically put an arm about my shoulders and given me the encouragement I needed, and the confidence to work." The two men developed a friendship, and Baldwin became Haley's most high-profile literary supporter.

Haley struggled to find his footing as a writer in New York. He briefly worked as a bank messenger, running cancelled checks from one branch to another. "People dealt with me as if they didn't even see me — I was just a cipher," Haley remembered. "People would just see your color and they didn't see any more." Haley said he experienced his racial identity differently in New York than he had in the South. "I had always up to that time been somebody, wherever I had been. ... Even if somebody was racially very intensely against you, hostile toward you, was calling you names or whatever, they were aware of you. ... But it was more of something simply to be totally ignored. ... It was a shock." Haley's memory of his time in New York echoed Ralph Ellison's classic novel, Invisible Man: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. ... When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me." The racism and invisibility Haley experienced fueled his desire to become a well-known author.

Haley's break as a writer came at a boxing gym in Harlem. Haley enrolled at Wiley's gym to meet the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who trained there. Haley briefly sparred with Davis in the ring and persuaded the press-shy musician to be interviewed for a new celebrity interview feature in Playboy magazine. The Miles Davis interview, published in September 1962, was a wide-ranging discussion of race and racism in American culture. Haley took notes as Davis described the lack of black people in film and television. "Take the movies and TV," Davis said. "How many times do you see anybody in the films but white people? You don't dig? Look, the next movie or TV you see, you count how many Negros or any other race but white that you see. ... If movies and TV are supposed to reflect this country, and this country's supposed to be democratic, then why don't they do it? Let's see all kinds of people dancing and acting." For Haley, the Miles Davis interview was the start of his education in what it meant to be a black artist and celebrity. No one would ever mistake Haley for a cool jazz musician, but, like Davis, Haley came to understand the pressures of producing work in the public spotlight and creating art for black and white audiences. Haley's second Playboy interview, with Malcolm X, received even more attention and prompted Doubleday to approach the black leader about partnering with Haley on an "as told to" autobiography. Malcolm X and Haley signed a contract with Doubleday for The Autobiography of Malcolm X in June 1963.

By summer 1963, Haley had secured one of the top literary agents in New York, Paul Reynolds. Paul Revere Reynolds (a distant relative of Paul Revere) joined his father's literary agency in 1926 after graduating from Williams College. Reynolds, who wrote The Writer and His Markets (1959), Writing and Selling Nonfiction (1963), and Writing and Selling Fiction (1965), was a tough negotiator who introduced Haley to the business of publishing.

Haley first mentioned Before This Anger to Reynolds in early September 1963. Hard at work on the Malcolm X book, Haley sent Reynolds a few pages from the new project to highlight how his views differed from those of the black Muslim leader. Before This Anger, Haley wrote, would portray "the pastoral simplicity and the root Christian culture of the 1930s Southern Negro — who migrated to the ghettos where he was fermented into today's black racism that has given us Malcolm X." "You mentioned that after this project, we would talk of others," Haley wrote. "I have it, Mr. Reynolds. I guarantee you a fine book, perfect for these times, its title to be 'Before the Anger.' Whenever we have lunch, I will want to tell you about it." Haley's staid demeanor and political views (he was a moderate Republican) made it easy for him to distinguish himself from Malcolm X. While the two men grew closer during the months they worked together on the autobiography, Haley regularly used Malcolm X and the fury of black militants as foils to advance Before This Anger.

Reynolds met Haley in the midst of changes in the author's personal life. In fall 1963, Haley got engaged to Juliette Collins, an airline stewardess he had met while traveling for a magazine assignment. The couple was married in 1964 just months after Haley ended his marriage to his first wife, Nan. (Haley and Nan were still married when he and Juliette became engaged, and Nan later claimed that she never signed divorce papers.) Reynolds hosted a surprise engagement party for the new couple at his home in Chappaqua, New York. "I so much enjoyed your surprise party, and so did Julie, who is so impressed with sudden entry into a world where she meets such important people," Haley wrote. In his library, Reynolds displayed books dedicated to him by the authors he had represented. Haley noted the names — Richard Wright, Irving Wallace, Conrad Richter, William Shirer — and resolved that he too would write significant books. I "so much enjoy being your client," Haley wrote, and "it shouldn't be any secret that it's my full intent to make your investment of time and interest in my development as an author prove to be variously worthwhile."

Haley also kept Reynolds apprised of his money problems, which fluctuated between moderate and severe over the next decade. "I'm plain broke," Haley admitted in the fall of 1963. "I am hoping that this dramatic Malcolm X book will end this for me from here in." In addition to the Malcolm X project, Haley and Reynolds communicated regularly about Before This Anger and other book and magazine ideas that could lead to book contracts and advances to pay Haley's bills.


Excerpted from Making Roots by Matthew F. Delmont. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Before This Anger 11

2 The Gambia 37

3 Speaking Roots 53

4 Writing Roots 79

5 Producing Roots 103

6 Reading Roots 131

7 Watching Roots 153

8 A Troublesome Property 181

Conclusion 199

Notes 209

Bibliographic Essay 241

Index 247

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